by Michael Sfard
Around a decade ago, a new Israeli organization appeared out of nowhere. It had a name that sounded like a piece of medical equipment: NGO Monitor. The organization was founded by a Bar Ilan professor named Gerald Steinberg, as part of a right-wing think tank led by Netanyahu confidant Dore Gold. Since its establishment, Steinberg and NGO Monitor have been working tirelessly to dry out the funding of Israeli, Palestinian, and international human rights and peace groups.
Like a pesky fly, the Monitor sticks to anti-occupation civil society organizations, following their activity and their fundraising efforts and exerting great efforts to harm their ability to raise money. In order to realize this goal, NGO Monitor has created an industry of articles, data sheets, and posts which circularly cite one another and slander these organizations. It then systematically repeats and recycles those papers so many times that had they been academic papers, they would have been the hit of Google Scholar.
For years I have ignored Steinberg and his Monitor. He wrote about me endlessly, accusing me of every possible transgression, and dedicating countless paragraphs to me on his website. I never responded. After all, Steinberg does not address the content of my words and works to silence my community, so there cannot be a discussion between us. When I opened a Twitter account a few years ago, it took all but four minutes for a chilling message to be sent to me: “Gerald Steinberg is following you.” I immediately wrote to him: “And I thought you had been following me for years,” and for the first time in my life, I blocked someone on social media.
Last week Steinberg devoted an article to me in Makor Rishon, a version of which later appeared in English in the Times of Israel. My inclination, again, was to remain silent, to ignore it. But a doubt that nested in me grew as the minutes passed. Maybe it’s because that in the current Israeli political climate ignoring incitement is a luxury we cannot afford, and maybe it’s because this article exemplifies Steinberg and his Monitor’s contemptible and dangerous methodology. In any event I have come to the conclusion that this time I will respond. So, I present to you an annotated reading of Steinberg’s most recent creation.
The pretext for the current attack on me is a lecture I gave in December 2016 to an audience of supporters of the U.S. based Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at NYU, which was co-hosted by the local Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) group. The point of the article is that what I did was egregious. To him, addressing these organizations was an immoral act.
In his article, Steinberg refrained entirely from referring to the contents of my lecture. He ignored the fact that the subject was litigation for human rights in Israeli courts, and that I mourned the disintegration of the few democratic principles left in our country. Steinberg also chose to overlook the fact and that the critical stance I have expressed toward the policies of the Israeli government stems, as I have explained, from my concern for the country in which I live. He did not even bother to inform his readers how I reacted to the single comment from an audience member, who expressed opposition to the right of the State of Israel to exist. In Steinberg’s world, it does not matter what we say; only who we talk to. This is the guiding principle of his organization’s activity, the keystone of its work: guilt is not determined according to what you do (or what you say). No, guilt is predicated on those with whom you are in contact (“guilt by association”).
That principle is also applicable to the additional charge in his article about me, that I had once appeared as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority by victims of terrorism, at the invitation of the PA’s lawyers. Steinberg has been alluding to the testimony for years. In fact, he does so every time he mentions me, which is quite often, and each time he refrains from telling his audience exactly what I said in my testimony, thereby letting his readers deduce that I must have sided with the terrorists.
In fact, during this short testimony that focused on questions relating to Israeli law (and not at all to the question of the PA’s responsibility for terrorist attacks), I was asked whether suicide terrorism was a war crime. My answer was that it was an even more serious category of international crime: a crime against humanity. But as noted, Steinberg does not care what I said, but rather with whom I was in contact (the Palestinian Authority’s lawyers, in this case).
The same goes for Steinberg’s latest articles, which do not respond at all to what I said in the NYU event, but rather with to whom I said it. And as far as he is concerned, the audience that gathered to hear me speak at NYU’s Law School is illegitimate. Why? Dealing first with JVP Steinberg says the organization is conducting anti-Israeli campaigns (the group supports a boycott of Israel to end the occupation). Furthermore, JVP is running a project aimed at stopping joint training between Israeli and American security forces, on the grounds that adopting Israeli security measures increases the harm to minorities in the U.S. Steinberg also throws the word anti-Semitism into the mix without backing it up with anything. It is amazing how easily he attributes hatred of Jews to the organization’s activists simply because they are critical of security cooperation with Israel.
But Steinberg’s argument reaches its crescendo with the reasoning he provides for his contention that SJP is an illegitimate organization. This one is truly a masterpiece. Steinberg writes: “SJP [is] closely connected to the Americans Muslims for Palestine, which, according to 2016 Congressional testimony by Jonathan Schanzer, is part of the funding mechanism for a terror organization [viz Hamas].”
Got it? There is some organization — another group, not the organization which I addressed — that some Jonathan Schnitzer says is related to Hamas. That other organization is “close” to the organization that invited me to talk, a known group in New York and in campuses around the U.S., and thus I should not give a lecture to its members. (By the way, what does “close” mean in this context: are they bosom buddies? Cousins maybe? Do they play backgammon together on Friday nights?) We keep moving further and further away from the original connection; a bit like the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. It’s five degrees of separation from anyone with culpable guilt, and it gets passed on like a contagious disease from one to another.
And so, you see, I was lecturing a group of anti-Semites and Hamas collaborators. And here is the perfect headline for Steinberg’s article: “Michael Sfard’s Disreputable Allies,” in which the reader finally understands that because I gave a two-hour lecture to students and left-wing activists in New York, I chose Hamas as my ally, no less.
Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice for Palestine are two legitimate organizations that operate non-violently, legally, and civilly to end the occupation. I do not necessarily endorse all their activities, and I also do not have to subscribe to their views in order to happily accept their invitation to address their members. Steinberg, on the other hand, stains the reputation of people and organizations on the basis of absolutely nothing. He attributes to the speaker the positions of his listeners, he attributes the financier’s crimes to those whom they fund, and he throws the word “close” to insinuate complicity. But, most egregiously, he bandies around the term anti-Semitism in a manipulative and harmful manner that cheapens the term and the history of the Jewish people.
For years Steinberg has been inventing demons and then hounding them and all those who are “connected” to them. For more than a decade he has been tracking me and my friends, gathering information about every dollar received by this human rights organization or another, checking who was in the audience of our events, reporting on us, and inciting the community to hate and silence us without ever dealing with the content of our statements. His organization is a militia of the Israeli government that works symbiotically with it to promote the same agenda: perpetuating the occupation by slandering and thwarting the funding of organizations that are working to end it.
I have no idea whether Steinberg has any grandchildren, but a day will come when they or their children will ask him, “What did you do during the bad years?” And he will have to respond to them: “I spent my days hunting down human rights activists and peace activists.”
Michael Sfard is an Israeli human rights lawyer. This article was translated by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, and was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Gerald Steinberg